What are the core units of study that you teach in your English Language Arts class? Essays, Literature, Poetry, maybe argumentative writing? In Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s newest book 4 Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency (Heinemann, 2021), there is a deep dive into teaching essay writing, poetry, book clubs, and digital composition.
Now for a disclaimer, I am a HUGE!!!!! Kittle and Gallagher fan. Ever since I participated in a workshop 18 years ago with Kelly Gallagher at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York I was hooked. I have read every one of his books, adopted Article of the Week in my middle school classroom, and even use many of his texts in the college classes that I teach. If I am at NCTE or ILA, I will go to a Gallagher and Kittle workshop because I know that the information they provide is practical and timely. So, this book was something that I was eager to dive in. Let me highlight the key points presented in each section.
How do we as teachers bring students’ voices to the forefront of essays. So much of essay writing that is taught in school is bland, rote, and formatted in a constricting five paragraph essay. But that is not the types of essays that we read outside of school. Check out Sam Anderson’s essay in The New York Times, “I Recommend Eating Chips.” or John Green’s collection of essays in The Anthropocene Reviewed. These writers write compelling and insightful essays that make readers pay attention to the insight, perspective, and point of view. Teachers want to provide opportunity for students to write meaningful essays that honor and amplify their voice and agency. We might need to experiment with form — while throwing out the five paragraph essay template to write authentic essays that blend forms and hone in on craft and structure.
Some teaching moves one can make to help students with their essay writing include providing lots of model and mentor texts and have students complete a WRITE AROUND to notice and name the writing craft moves. Additionally, providing students with lots of TIME TO WRITE and low stakes opportunities to develop their writing and voice. Kittle and Gallagher write, “A volume of ungraded practice gives them opportunities to play with their ideas – some which they will develop into polished essays using craft moves they learn in this study. We know that the quantity of writing will move more writers towards proficiency.” (page 13) Teachers must MODEL THE WRITING PROCESS for students and write along side students. Have students read, analyze, and IMITATE WRITING PASSAGES, Kittle and Gallagher call this writing activity, “kidnap the structure and style”. Don’t forget to allow time for students to conference, work in writing groups, and opportunities to revise, reflect, and evaluate their own essays.
Similar to writing, volume is key when teaching reading and readers. Kittle and Gallagher write, “Book clubs motivate us to read. They deepen our understanding of not only the book but how others read and interpret the same text. Books stretch out thinking, and they expose us to books and authors we may not have otherwise missed.” (Page 45) Students practice the habits of life long readers when they engage in book club conversations, books encourage readers to talk about the topics addressed in these texts. More importantly, “rigor is not in the book itself, but in the work students to understand it.” (pg. 47) It requires teachers to choose books that are relevant and provide opportunities for students to reflect and by writing daily in their Reader’s Notebooks.
“Professor Thomas C Foster notes, poetry “offers a window into the human experience.” (page 80). Kittle and Gallagher call poetry, “little mysteries.” There needs to be a balance in poetry analysis and poetry writing. Inviting students to create and write their own poems and “start with playing, wondering, free writing, reading and listening to poems, creating notebook lists and phrases, and imitating. ” (page 82) Again, volume is key when teaching poetry. For poetry lists you can find more on Penny Kittle’s website.
Here are two poetry writing exercises to try out with students and lots more in the book:
Spine Poems – students collect books from the classroom library or their own personal library and stack in combinations so that the titles on the spines make poems.
Crowd Source Poetry: Using a Google Form, a teacher can crowd source poetry lines to build a community driven poem about an event, person, theme, or central idea.
Additional poetry lessons and activities include teaching figurative language, having students emulate a poetry form, host a poetry tournament to immerse students in a poetry study by theme or genre. Host a poet of the day – I actually do something similar to this with my poetry playlists providing students with a menu of poets, poems, and poetry forms.
In terms of assessment, Kittle and Gallagher created an “Excellence in Poetry” Grading Menu where poems are not graded individually but students are provided with choices and each student turns in a poem for inclusion in a classroom anthology. There were also six different poetry analysis assignments/exams.
We live in a digital and visual saturated culture and to think that literacy and texts does not blend digital media. Kittle and Gallagher state, “Digital composition is not just engaging, it is necessary.” (page 117) Let’s put our students interest first and support them as content creators and creative communicators while practicing digital citizenship. Possible digital composition assignments include: designing public service announcements (PSAs), create a movie from a notebook entry, make a podcast, and analyze digital texts.
If you are looking for practical ideas to implement in your English Language Arts classroom tomorrow than Kittle and Gallagher’s book with give you four unit of study that support deep students learning and at the same time help students to practice essential skills needed to be critical thinkers and consumers of information while at the same time honoring student voice, choice, agency, and creativity.